A Love Letter To Pizza, A Food That Is Good (And Almost Never Bad)


Let’s talk about pizza. As the legend goes, pizza, in its most recognizable current form, was dreamed up in 1890 by an Italian baker named Raffaele Esposito. To honor the visiting Queen of Italy, Margherita of Savoy, he baked a flatbread with ingredients that represented the colors of the country’s flag; tomatoes for red, basil leaves for green, and fresh mozzarella for white. Thus, the ‘Pizza Margherita’ was born. It was by no means “the first pizza,” though. Italian bakers had already been adding tomato to flatbreads for decades, possibly longer. And flatbreads with toppings had been around since Ancient Greece, at least. But you know the old saying: When the legend becomes the story, print the legend. Congratulations, Raffaele Esposito, Inventor of Pizza! [citation needed]

Pizza came to America shortly after, with Italian immigrants opening up shops in their new neighborhoods and serving it to people hungry for a taste of home. It stayed in these neighborhoods, more or less, until World War II veterans, who had developed a taste for it while stationed in Italy, returned home and started spreading the word. This is one of those historical facts that seems perfectly logical if you take it at face value (“Oh, of course they told everyone about pizza when they came home, because pizza is great”), but becomes super confusing under the tiniest bit of scrutiny. Here’s my point: For this to be true, early non-Italian Americans had to spend 50 years walking past pizzerias, smelling the fresh mozzarella melting into the quickly toasting crust, processing that information in their brains, and then saying, “Nope! Not for me! One bowl of cold gruel, please!” If true, this has to be one of the most powerful examples of xenophobia in history. Top ten, easy. I mean: Pizza! People didn’t eat pizza! It’s madness.

Speaking of madness, once pizza did get popular in America, hoo boy. Based on my extensive research on the subject (googled “number of pizza restaurants in the us” and clicked on the first link), there are more than 70,000 pizza restaurants in the United States right now, at which American consumers spend more than $30 billion a year. That, scientifically speaking, is a lot of pizza. Some might even say it is too much pizza. But these people would be wrong. Or, perhaps, doctors.

(Wanna know something else I learned while researching pizza today? There’s a Pizza Hall of Fame. A Pizza Hall of Fame! You can’t possibly imagine how excited I became upon learning this. I had images in my head of an entire wing filled with famous pizza memorabilia, great moments in pizza history, and dozens and dozens of mustachioed bronze busts of the world’s greatest pizza makers. I was ready to book a trip, at which point I learned something very upsetting: There is no real, physical Pizza Hall of Fame. It’s just a website maintained by “the pizza industry’s business publication,” PMQ Pizza Magazine. This was, and continues to be, devastating.)

I suppose the point I’m meandering toward is that pizza is good. I know that’s not exactly controversial (please buy my upcoming book, The Ocean Is Big and Wet), but it’s worth remembering every now and then when foodie-types start yammering about the pop-up brunch restaurant that serves deconstructed mimosa fizz and is only open for two hours at dusk every other equinox. Pizza is on a short list of foods — alongside tacos, doughnuts, and a handful of others — that are simple, delicious, generally inexpensive, and able to be eaten with your hands. There’s really not much more you can ask for out of food. And that’s before we even get to the part where you can put other good foods on top of it. Like sausage. And pepperoni. You can’t put pepperoni on a doughnut. Well, you kind of can, but…

Sometimes pizza is even great, too. I’m sure you all have a pizza place you think is the best. For me, it’s probably Pepe’s in New Haven, Connecticut, which has one of those ancient coal-burning ovens that burns hotter than the Earth’s core and is probably contributing to global warming more than five million cans of Aquanet pointed directly at the sun. The crust comes out crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, and if I keep talking about it, I’ll have to stop writing this paragraph to drive there from Pennsylvania right now. But the nice thing about pizza is, whatever place you just thought of when I said “I’m sure you all have a pizza place you think is the best,” even if it isn’t Pepe’s, you’re right! Because, again, pizza is good. It is incredibly good at being good.

It’s not just that pizza is good, though. One of the great beauties of pizza is that it is also incredibly difficult for it to be bad. At its worst, barring extreme scenarios or topping-related miscarriages of justice, pizza rarely falls below the line of “fine.” Frozen pizza is fine. Pizza from a soulless pizza conglomerate is fine. Emergency mini-pizzas made in the toaster oven with stale English muffins, Ragu, and a slice of processed American cheese are basically fine. Leftover pizza eaten cold straight out of the refrigerator is beyond fine, and sometimes better than it was hot. You have to almost actively try to ruin pizza. Things that are this resilient — Tupperware, cockroaches, etc. — have no business tasting so good.

I’ll close with a story that illustrates this point. Many years ago, during a party that had reached the point where all ideas become very good ideas, I decided to try reheating leftover pizza on the grill. My reasoning at the time was sound: “This pizza is cold. I want it to be hot. The grill holds fire. Tada.” Unfortunately, the party had also reached the point where all very good ideas are quickly abandoned in favor of very, very good ideas, and at some point someone notified me that my pizza had caught fire. Panicked, I grabbed a bottle of water and dumped it on the pizza to extinguish the flames. The pizza, my pizza, was now somehow both burnt and soggy. And guess what: I ate it anyway, and it was still, like, okay. It wasn’t the best pizza I’ve ever had, I can confirm that. But it was still, for the most part, despite the hell I had just put it through, okay.

Pizza is a miracle.

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